Meet New Zealand artist Unsub. Her sound is rooted in dubstep and drum & bass but prone to experimental explorations. She released her fourth (and perhaps most personal) album Heartbreaker just before Christmas.
Perhaps you’ve also heard of Alexis K. Like Unsub, she’s been releasing since 2010 and has her feet firmly in 140 while also enjoying off-piste adventures of a slightly deeper variety. Her last album A Priori dropped late last year and will be followed by A Posteriori in April.
Maybe you’ve recently stumbled upon n0isemakeR. She made her debut in 2018 and has so far has toyed with future bass and drum & bass. She’s collaborated with both Unsub and Alexis K and will release her first solo album Chiaroscuro on March 13.
Between them they run a NexGen Music sub-label called Pure Heart Dirty Mind; they create all the music and draw all the artwork. Collectively they’ve released a remarkable body of work with a total of seven albums and a multitude of smaller releases so far with many more are soon to come. Some LPs are solo, other LPs are collaborative.
Alice (Alexis K), Lily (Unsub) and Ellie (n0ismakeR) are totally individual, autonomous and fully formed people who co-exist within a single body. They have their own character, musical tastes, interests, sense of humour, likes and dislikes.
Dissociative identity disorder develops when an important step of childhood, the forming of a central, integrated consciousness, is interrupted by severe trauma. The mind creates walls around the traumatic memories to be able to continue functioning, leading to the development of separate identity states holding ‘core’ memories.
Alice, Ellie and Lily often act as a defense mechanism, protectors for the younger personalities, switching between each other to overcome and deal with stressful, traumatic and difficult things that individually they are unable to.
Now, over years of getting to know each other – not to mention various remarkable life chapters such as being a pro Counter-Strike player and years of touring and gigging in Australia, living on a commune – Lily, Alice and Ellie have developed a state of co-consciousness. Through writing notes to each other, leaving musical projects open on the DAW for each other and drawing artwork together, they communicate and work collaboratively.
“It kind of goes against the survival mechanism of it all,” says Lily. “But it’s important steps for us to take to be able to work together as co-operating individuals. It’s that step from surviving to thriving.”
Currently five albums deep into an epic project comprising 18 albums – with more and more gigs stacking up in their native New Zealand as the releases land – Lily, Alice and Ellie all seem to be thriving. This mix is a great example of their collaborative work. Unsub b2b n0isemakeR at Aukland rave last year, Drum & Bloodbath.
Ahead of the release of Ellie n0isemakeR’s debut solo album next month we called them up to understand their unique situation and the inspiring way they deal with it…
Am I speaking to Lily, Alice or Ellie? You are three people…
Technically five, but only three of us are adults. The easiest way to explain is if you imagine the body is a car and most of the time it’s me, Lily, driving with someone in the passenger seat giving a running commentary. Sometimes someone else takes the wheel and when I’m not driving its like watching a movie. I have no control over what they’re saying or what they are doing. It’s quite bizarre. Then there’ll be other times when I’m not co-conscious and it’s a black out. I’ll lose an hour. I’ll be doing something then suddenly I’ll find myself doing something else.
When one of you is taking over the wheel, do you know which one is doing it straight away?
Sometimes. There are certain triggers that happen. So if Ellie is trying to take over and do things, I get itchy eyes. There are different pressures in my head when others want to take over. People who’ve known us for a long time will be able to recognise them. One of the young ones has got a lisp and Ellie talks a bit higher, for example.
So when did you start to become aware that you were all making music?
Well Alice was the first one who started producing. She was using music to figure out what was going on with her. It was the result of an experience she went through where she was locked up in this anxiety and felt she couldn’t function in the world. We couldn’t communicate with each other except through music. We wrote songs to each other because, at the time, we couldn’t directly communicate. We told each other how we were feeling.
What an amazing dialogue. How rapid was that Q&A?
Sometimes it was quite fast but the whole process of us collaborating on an album took the best part of three years. At the start maybe once a month I’d find some tracks by Alice and vice versa. I can’t be certain on when or what or how long. When I watch one of the others, it’s like watching through a curtain. Like watching someone else’s memory.
Wow yeah, so sharing memories is complicated?
Yeah. We know when we’re seeing our own memories and when its experiencing the others. It gets more complicated with core memories. So, for example, we had a long recovery after surgery and it was Alice who went through that. I just had a blackout through all of that. I have no memory of it at all and if I try to access those memories it tends to trigger Alice out. Which isn’t a great feeling for any of us so we try not to.
But you all share a musical sense. Ellie is the younger one out of the three of you and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that n0isemakeR is the most uncompromising and provocative sound you all create, right?
Very much so. She’s a teenager so she’s strong headed and idealistic. She’s like ‘this is the way I’m doing it, if you don’t like it fuck off.’
Ha! When did you first hear Ellie’s music? Were you even aware she’d been making music?
I think initially she’d start something. Just like bass sounds or specific drum samples and leave them open on the desktop then I’d come back and be like ‘oh there’s some things to play with’. I kinda taught her how to do it because she would increasingly be co-conscious while I was writing. It was about four years ago when she started getting into it. She’d heard future bass and really wanted to make that and it took me a year to convince her to make drum & bass. Now she’s starting to combine the two a lot more.
You started in dubstep didn’t you?
Yeah we came through in 2010. Alice had her first released in 2010, mine was 2011 and then it became a competition between us. But I didn’t want to ride Alice’s coat-tails. I wanted it to be like an unknown subject. Unsub.
You were both on Caliber at one point. Quite a few artists started off or had early releases on that label. Xilent, Hawyre, Emperor, Kursa…
They launched the label with my first release. They were super nice actually and offered to give me 100% royalties because it was the first one. They were great to work with.
That triggered a long run of releases didn’t it?
Things really kicked off around 2011/12. I met an MC who I got engaged to and we toured Australia for three or four years. We lived on the road, show to show. Alice stepped aside and said she wasn’t into guys and gave me a chance to live a normal life.
How did Alice let you know how she felt? Did she leave you a note?
Yeah she wrote me a letter. It’s funny because it never occurred for us to write things to each other before. Then Ellie came along and wrote ‘I exist’ all over the body in permanent marker. It was quite a bizarre thing to wake up to and took nearly two weeks to wash off. That was an ‘ah ha’ moment. It wasn’t me and it wasn’t something Alice would do so we knew was someone else.
Do you have a shared notepad? I guess the idea is to create harmony in the chaos and let all three of you express yourselves?
That’s the goal; for all of us to have a life in the outside world. Something we can all enjoy and express ourselves in. We still keep a notebook handy in case there are important deadlines and to keep track of medications so there aren’t any accidental double doses.
That sounds like such a tricky balance…
It’s not easy because we’re all good at pretending to be each other so people around us wouldn’t know unless they’ve known us for a long time. It wouldn’t be a great system if people could tell, right? But the more time we spend out in the world, the more we learn about ourselves and the more we grow as individuals who can learn from each other’s experiences. It kind of makes it a necessity to be ourselves in the world.
If people booked Alexis, but she didn’t want to come out to play… Wait, is that the right figure of speech?
What would you do then if Lily was there but not Alice?
Lily would take over. She has to at times anyway because there are always certain triggers that will pull one of us out. We are all different kinds of protectors within the system who were created at one point or another to fill in a gap, or be able to do something that the others couldn’t. Alice gets intense social anxiety. She gets very wound up and can’t start her own sets. But as soon as she hears her music playing she feels comfortable enough to play. So either our friend has done it or I’ve done it and she’s in the background ready to come on.
What’s that feeling like? When you switch?
Often it feels like that moment before you fall asleep where you’re half thinking about something but know you’re about to fall into the bliss. But it can also sometimes feel like time is skipping or fractured. It’s a lot more immediate with the DJing or in high anxiety situations. Ellie and I do back to back a lot because we play each other’s songs and you can see the difference in how we dance. I’m more of a “nodder,” “groover” or “mosher” but Ellie can actually dance really well. One of the Littles (younger ones) comes out sometimes because she loves the music and flashy lights and then she suddenly looks at the controls and freaks out because she doesn’t know what she’s doing which immediately causes one of the rest of us to come out.
Do any of your identities age?
Only Alice ages with the body. The younger ones haven’t. They happened at particular times when things triggered their creation (for lack of a better term). I have no memory of what they were. Alice knows some of them though. She went on a quest to find out who we all are and where we came from in the hope that she could break through the amnesia walls and there could be some type of integration, or what you described as a harmony. But it didn’t quite work out.
It sounds like you’ve been through some awful trauma for this to happen. Do you think that will always be the case?
It worked to a certain extent, there are primarily the main five of us now when there used to be more. It also helped develop the memory sharing to the extent that’s possible now but I think it’s come as close to the point as we can get. Alice figured out where all of us came from and basically removed as many amnesia walls as she could and make things as cohesive as they’re going to get. I had an existential crisis for a while and wondered if I was just the imaginary friend who ‘took over’. I wondered how selfish it was for me to be the host, to be the only one ‘known’ in the outside world. What gives me the right to have all these life experiences and not let them experience them? Or to take credit for things that they created? It was a headfuck.
I can’t even imagine. At one point you took a break from music and got into competitive gaming, right?
Yeah. Our body has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which means we have loose joints and the muscles pull them out of place. I’d play a show and thrash out and then couldn’t walk for two days afterwards. I got into a deep depression, put on weight, wouldn’t do music because I wasn’t able to play out. So I dived into gaming as an escape. I’m competitive by nature so seeing how far I could push Counter-Strike became super addictive for about three years. I’d still occasionally do music but Alice wrote a whole album while I was playing. I didn’t even know until last year. Ellie got into it playing Counter-Strike too.
I bet she had a different playing style?
Totally. I’ll try and be tactical, she’d run in there and just shoot first, ask questions later. She’s always been loud. Noisemaker is her nickname from Counter-Strike.
Would she come into play while you were playing?
She would! A lot of players were Ellie’s age so she knew how to inspire them to play with that ‘fuck yeah!’ confidence and get involved.
Did the gaming pay the bills?
The streaming did. The prize pool for female leagues isn’t huge but there’s far less competition in it so the chance to win it is higher than if you were playing in male teams. Welcome to the macho world of e-sports. We love it though.
So then you started drawing. Are those illustrations in your release artwork a combo of all of your works?
Ellie draws as well as me. I do the planned-out ones that mess with perspective like the cat and little girl. That distortion of perspective. Alice will write stream of consciousness thoughts on the background and then sometimes the younger ones will do the black over top. It’s a team effort.
Understanding your situation, the drawings make more sense now. Elements of it alarmed me a little but they make more sense now I understand your situations a little more…
Well it gets complex. Ellie and I both have interests in BDSM and power dynamics, the name Unsub should be enough of a clue, but the artwork is also often referencing experiences and abstract understandings of each other’s experiences. The ethos of ‘safe, sane, consensual’ and the importance of communication and safe words are something that can be applied to a lot of other areas in life and that world lets us reclaim our power in a way we otherwise couldn’t.
The label name too is a reinforcement of this: Pure Heart, Dirty Mind. Two opposites can co-exist. Pure Heart being able to have a child-like curiosity about the world and love without judgement, Dirty Mind being a reference to the hypersexuality which is actually a trauma response. Its kind of the riddle of all of us. The bigger picture story being told with all of it is of our life together surviving trauma and learning to function in the world. Being true to that sometimes takes you to confronting places. We exist because of a child’s coping mechanism and it manifested in each of us being who we are but it was never a choice so how can we judge each other for that. That’s very complicated. It makes things like communication especially in relationships essential. It was actually through a BDSM dynamic that I got back into drawing.
Can I ask how?
Through Counter-Strike I got into a mentor/student type relationship. He would train me on Counterstrike. He would often call me Innocent Sunflower if I wasn’t playing the game smart enough but the name eventually it came to represent a set of lessons he taught me that I could apply to life as well as in game. I decided to get a tattoo of the sunflower to be reminded of the things he taught me. When I got home I found a picture Alice had drawn when she was younger. It was of sunflowers and I took it as a sign. So my mentor tasked me to draw a picture each a week as part of the accountability. It became really addictive to the point I was drawing for 16 hours and only practicing an hour in game.
Then I got an offer to captain a new US female team and it was either committing to that or being creative. The gaming stopped being so important at that point and the more I was drawing, the more I wanted to tell those stories in music. Alice suggested we take the perceived power dynamics out of music and do everything ourselves with the label, the artwork and our story…
There are a lot of albums between you all. 18, right?
Yeah. We all write a lot. We’re collaborating on some. Alice and I have our own individual side projects too. Ellie’s first solo album is out next month. That’s a full Drum & Bass album with a lot of energy and optimism. Most recently was my own solo album – Heartbreaker – which tells the story of the relationship with my ex-fiancé and all the experiences we had together over five years. So there are some very angry songs on there and some very loving ones that are very emotional.
Can you listen to the album or is it too raw?
I always can. I studied music therapy, one of things I put in the songs were memory triggers so when I listen to it in another situation I can have a different experience and overwrite a memory that’s attached to that song. Rather than it remind me of being angry, it can remind me of something pleasurable, like playing it for the first time on stage. Kind of hacking my brain.
Your brain has hacked itself in many ways over the years. You’ve found your way.
Yeah, I guess we continue to find workarounds and hacks because, as I mentioned, the whole point of dissociative identity disorder is a defence system and it’s an ongoing process when you interact with the world but being co-conscious and open about things in this way is allowing us to grow beyond that. When we collaborate it’s like working with your best friend but even smoother. Getting to this point has been hard but everything’s come together with having the support around us. For us to be able to put things out there in the way we are is a new challenge but it’s an exciting one to be able to share with the outside world.